NYC jails violate city law by holding people hours after posting bail, report finds

Eagle  file photo by David Brand

Eagle file photo by David Brand

By David Brand

The New York City Department of Corrections routinely fails to release people who post bail within a three-hour window mandated by city law, according to a report published Friday by two justice reform organizations.

The Bronx Freedom Fund and The Legal Aid Society audited their Queens and Bronx client’s release times after posting bail in April and found that their clients waited an average of six hours and 52 minutes — more than twice the period mandated by law — before they were released after posting bail. More than 92 percent of clients waited more than three hours before they were released.

A package of bail reform legislation enacted by the city in 2017 included a law mandating that the DOC release detained individuals who make bail within three hours, starting in October 2018. The law initially established a five-hour window and gradually decreased to four hours, then three hours in most circumstances.

The Bronx Freedom Fund, which posts bail for low-income defendants in city jails, says fewer than a quarter of its clients have been released within the mandated time period since the law took effect.

Last month, 27 Legal Aid and Bronx Freedom Fund clients from Queens and the Bronx were bailed out of city jails, but only two were released within three hours, the organizations found in their report.

Nine of the remaining 25 individuals were held for more than 7 hours after making bail, three were released more than 10 hours after making bail and one was held for more than 17 hours, according to the report. Five people were detained overnight after they posted bail.

“It's been seven months since this law was supposed to be fully implemented and almost two years since its passage. It is inexcusable that the Department of Correction has yet to comply,” said Bronx Freedom Fund Director Elena Weissmann. “As a result, every week, hundreds of low-income New Yorkers remain incarcerated for hours beyond the legal limit even after their bail has already been posted.”

The report quotes one individual who said he was held overnight and ended up losing his job and spot in a shelter. The Bronx Freedom Fund and Legal Aid said they will continue to release monthly reports on bail release time to ensure DOC complies with city law.

“Our clients continue to suffer wrongful incarceration at Rikers Island and other facilities — some of the most dangerous jails in the country — because of the Department’s bureaucratic bumbling,” said Elizabeth Bender, staff attorney with Legal Aid’s Decarceration Project. “If Mayor Bill de Blasio is serious about fast-tracking the closure of Rikers Island, this starts with reducing the jail’s pretrial detention population.”

DOC acknowledged the delays in releasing defendants, and said that the process takes time because staff look up warrants and other court-related documents and offer discharge and reentry services.

“We don’t want people staying in our jails any longer than necessary. We want people who pay bail back home with their families and at their jobs,” said DOC Press Secretary Jason Kersten. “We’ve done a lot to make paying bail easier, and we are working hard to safely speed up the discharge process.”

The city law outlines some exceptions to the three-hour window, including time concessions for discharge planning, whether a person needs medical attention and whether the person is being transported to or from a jail or courthouse at the time their bail is posted.

In March, the City Council released a report criticizing the bail system and the DOC for holding defendants for excessive periods of time.

“Any amount of time a presumptively innocent individual needlessly spends in jail is too much time,” the Council report said. “Every extra hour that an individual spends detained keeps him or her away from family, work, and community.

That report, based on an examination by the Council’s Oversight and Investigations Unit in January and February, specifically found that DOC does not accept cash bail payments “immediately and continuously” after a person is detained, another portion of the city law. The DOC is supposed to accept bail 24 hours a day inside courthouses, designated sites within a half mile from courthouses or online.

In practice, that is not happening, the Council report concluded.

“Further, DOC is not releasing inmates within three hours after they have paid bail,” the Council report stated. “DOC’s policies and practices have created a system in which even an individual who is able to pay bail faces obstacles and challenges at every stage in order to do so.”